By Richard Harrington
IN THE LINER notes to his new album, "Grown Backwards," David Byrne asks, "Are these songs unified by any particular concern or feeling? Is there a story here? Why did it turn out this way? Is this a rehab record? A break-up record? A 9-11 record?"
Byrne doesn't actually answer his own questions, but he leaves plenty of evidence that yeses suffice all around. As a longtime downtown New Yorker, Byrne obviously felt the aftershocks of 9/11, and in the last couple of years there have been cathartic breakups, as well, including his 15-year marriage to costume designer Adelle Lutz and his similarly long-lived stewardship of the adventurous world music label Luaka Bop. Byrne, who recently turned 52, moved out of the Greenwich Village brownstone that housed his family (he has a 15-year-old daughter, Malu) and his label, as well as his recording and art studios. He now lives in Hell's Kitchen, or as it prefers to be called, Clinton.
All of which may explain the palpable melancholy that pervades much of "Grown Backwards" as well as Byrne's recent soundtrack for "Young Adam" (released as "Lead Us Not Into Temptation"). In one of his new songs, Byrne mourns that "Glass and concrete and stone / It is just a house, not a home."
Yet there's also a sense of rediscovery and liberation, and Byrne concedes that the unsettledness of recent years has been good for the creative process.
"It certainly shakes things up a little bit," Byrne said recently from his new home office. "In a way, it makes you not worry about, 'Hey, what are people going to think of this? Should I do this or should I not do this?' It kind of helps you follow your instincts a little bit because some of the other guideposts are not there. You're on unfamiliar ground."
"Grown Backwards," Byrne's debut for Nonesuch, has several meanings. Though he's now sporting silvery white hair, Byrne suggests he feels younger, somehow renewed by all the recent changes. The album title is also a reference to a songwriting process very different from past works, what Byrne has dubbed a "top down" approach. Rather than rooting his songs in beats, rhythms and textures and then adding lyrics and melodies, this time around he created them by humming melodic and lyric fragments into a mini-recorder, only later fleshing them out. For someone who has long reveled in the richness of funk, African and Latin rhythms, "Grown Backwards" is the least percussive of Byrne's albums.
At the same time, it expands his use of strings via the Tosca Strings, an Austin-based ensemble that made a name for itself playing tangos in rock clubs. Chamber-rock is nothing new, of course, but it's new to Byrne, and, he says, "I love it, and I love it in performing, too [the Tosca Strings were part of his last tour]. There's a lot more that can be done with it that I haven't touched on."
One inspiration was seminal Brazilian pop singer and composer Caetano Veloso. "He was doing it in a way where there were percussive grooves right there in the forefront but also the strings in the forefront, and not a whole lot else," Byrne says of Veloso's approach. "I thought that was great, a really nice mixture of rhythms, which traditionally would relate to the physicality of the body, and then the strings, which -- in a very kind of cliched way -- always signify emotion and sentimentality and everything like that to a listener.
"Even though I'm not really using [strings] in a syrupy way, the very sound of them kind of grabs the emotional center before a drum or tambourine would," Byrne explains with a laugh, adding that the process has opened up the emotionality of his singing. Some critics have called "Grown Backwards" and "Look Into the Eyeball" the most personal and "heartfelt" albums of his career, as if such qualities were previously absent.
"With some of the earlier stuff, I hear the emotion there," Byrne says. "There are a lot more distancing devices in the earlier songs, both musically and lyrically, but I still hear the emotion coming through. It fights to come through, but you can hear the singer and the writer struggling with it, and that, to me, is just as interesting as blatant, 'heartfelt' stuff. Some of this is a little more of that, but I think they're hearing the strings, they're hearing my singing, which is a lot more open than it used to be, and all those kinds of factors add up."
Byrne, working with his longtime backing band (bassist Paul Frazier, drummer Kenny Wollesen and percussionist Mauro Refosco) as well as the Tosca Strings, has been having great fun reshaping material for his current "My Backwards Life" tour.
"This time I picked some of the least likely Talking Heads songs to have string arrangements, like 'I Zimbra' and 'Blind.' Those were two of the most Afro-sounding Talking Heads songs, and I thought, what if all those Afro-guitar lines were put on the strings? You'd expect me to choose the most melodic, ballady kind of songs to add strings to, but [I thought] let's not just use them as sweetener, which is kind of in keeping with what I've been doing anyway."
For example, a recent concert review by Lindsay Barnes of the Dartmouth college newspaper heralded the recasting of Byrne's best-known Talking Heads-era song, "Psycho Killer": "The strings rose slowly from silence to play a hauntingly restrained prelude before giving away the secret and playing the familiar staccato bass intro. Byrne then stepped up to the microphone and sang the first verse in a chillingly soft voice that, when combined with the strings, gave the song's narrator an air of eerie sophistication. It was the Hannibal Lecter remix of 'Psycho Killer.' The song slowly crescendoed to a climax in which Byrne strapped on his Telecaster and chopped out a menacing guitar solo."
The performance earned a two-minute standing ovation.
Byrne's new album is full of surprises, too, from his matter-of-fact readings of two operatic arias ("Un di felice" from Verdi's "La Traviata" and "Au fond du temple saint" from Bizet's " The Pearl Fishers," a duet, in French, with Rufus Wainwright) to a cover of Lambchop's "The Man Who Loved Beer" and a reworking of "Lazy," a huge European house hit in 2002, when Byrne recorded it with X-Press 2.
And there's political edge as well, thanks to songs like "Empire," recorded with the Carla Bley Big Band. It was actually written a few years ago as a faux-anthem for the Republican Party (sample lyrics: "Young artists and writers, please heed the call / What's good for business is good for us all"), put aside as too ironic and reintroduced post 9/11. Other songs such as "Astronaut" and "The Other Side of This Life" are socially caustic as well. The set list on the tour includes such politically themed songs as "Life During Wartime" and "What a Day That Was" -- "That sounds vaguely apocalyptic, too," Byrne says. " 'Blind' is about a guy being accused of terrorism and being strung up under the name of democracy, and I thought, 'Gee, how long ago was this written?'"
In 1988, for Talking Heads' last studio album, "Naked."
Talking Heads, who split acrimoniously in 1991, reunited in 2002 when the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. At the ceremony, the members put aside their differences long enough for a four-song set, and later in the year, worked together on Rhino's Grammy-winning "Once in a Lifetime" retrospective box set. The title may be accurate: Byrne and Chris Frantz, representing Tina Weymouth and Jerry Harrison, recently had a lunch meeting in which discussions about a reunion tour came and went very quickly. Apparently, Byrne has no interest in revisiting what he once called "an ulcer-making world."
"I know it's never going to get completely buried, but [the box set] and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame within a year of each other, I think was a nice feeling of closure," he says.
There was closure with Luaka Bop as well. Started in 1989, the label championed Brazilian tropicalia, Afro-Peruvian pop, Colombian electronica, South Indian techno and Venezuelan funk, but last year, Virgin ended its distribution deal and Byrne walked away as well.
"I just found the whole business very frustrating," he explains. "It was taking half my day every day, and a lot of my money -- it was in my own house! I just said I'm not a charity anymore, I can't afford to be." (The label continues under the stewardship of Byrne's former partner, Yale Evelev).
"I couldn't even write songs," Byrne adds. "I can be creative about finding music, working with artists, but as far as the business side, forget it. I'm not useless, but it's not where my strength lies."
That would be music, of course, and Byrne quickly channeled his energies in old directions. Having shared an Oscar in 1988 with Ryuchi Sakamoto for their soundtrack to Bernardo Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor," Byrne signed on for the recently released "Young Adam," whose cast and director were all Scottish: Byrne, who was born in Scotland but raised in Baltimore (where his father was an electronics engineer), worked with musicians from such Scottish bands as Belle and Sebastian, Mogwai and the Delgados, creating an appropriately moody, mostly instrumental soundtrack.
Someday Byrne may even return to actual filmmaking and follow up 1986's "True Stories," his quirky faux-documentary tribute to Texas eccentrics. It was just a few years ago that Byrne pitched a new film to some Hollywood producers, something about a Second Coming with a Jesus cloned from DNA taken from a blood sample off a nail from the Cross. This was, of course, pre-"The Passion of the Christ," and Byrne insists "it was low budget, too. No multitudes or anything like that. Boy, you should have seen the eyeballs rolling with that one."